A delicate balance

February 25, 2012. Interviews translated by Gilbert Kubwimana.

Image above: Christine. 

Solange is the president of Agaseke Vision, a cooperative of women who weave raffia baskets. Most of the weavers have HIV/AIDS, which makes their lives exponentially more difficult when considering growing families, sick or deceased husbands, and the struggle of finding steady employment. She and the cooperative's vice president, Christine, provide leadership to the women even in the face of an uncertain market.

Solange is originally from Gisenyi, which is located northwest of Kigali on Lake Kivu. She now lives in Kigali with her mother, cousin, and two children. Solange was widowed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

"It was so difficult for me as a young widow to support my children, to feed them, to help them to go to school. It was not easy," said Solange, who used to farm and do other small jobs for families to earn money. "But the money I got from those small jobs was not enough to support my family."

When Solange started to weave, she was able to provide for all of her children's needs.

"My story is almost the same as my colleagues'," Solange said.

Vice President Christine agrees and shares her story. Christine, also from Gisenyi, lives with her sister, her husband, and their 8-year-old, Belise. Christine's husband is critically ill with HIV.

"He's almost dying; he's not able to go to work. I'm waiting for him to pass away," Christine said. She is responsible for feeding her family. And that's not all.

"I have one child. Four others are dead," Christine said about her children. Christine's first four children were stillborn. Finally, she had her blood tested and found that she had HIV, and that was the reason for her children not surviving. "After knowing that I have HIV, the next child was helped by the nurses and doctors. She was delivered and she was protected from HIV," Christine said about her only child, Belise.

Both Solange and Christine have known incredible hardships, but have found income and friendship through weaving baskets. The women weave raffia baskets at home and meet three times a week in their tiny rented room. Once a week Gilbert Kubwimana, a program manager for Rwanda Partners, visits the women to counsel them and discuss basket orders.

"We've been waiting so long for people to come see what we are doing," Solange said. The women had been weaving together since 2004, but Rwanda Partners only began working with Agaseke Vision in the fall of 2011.

"When we requested the market with Rwanda Partners they welcomed us and gave us care," Solange said. "We are really comfortable with Rwanda Partners."

Solange expresses gratitude toward Rwanda Partners for giving them a foreign market for the baskets, but addresses the cooperative's concerns about needing more work. They hope the market will grow so they can earn a consistent income through their partnership with RP.

When Christine earns money from her baskets, she can buy good food for her husband in hopes of keeping him alive longer. She can also afford his medicine.

"When there is no market for baskets, it will be a big problem for our family," Christine said.

Image below: Solange. 

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